Seen and Heard Article
As a member of choir 7,at 10 am I registered in the Palace Hotel where choirs 3 and 4 were required an hour earlier. After finding the venue without difficulty, I wandered into the main entrance, queued for a little while to hand over my release form, and was issued with a sticker to affix to my chest, which specified my name, choir number and seating position. Rather unexpectedly, identities had been organised alphabetically by forename rather than surname, which meant that many people queueing found themselves in the wrong place! While registrations were happening, camera crews wandered around interviewing a chosen few, such as an entire family group of parents and boys who were taking part.
Following registration, I was faced with rather a long wait, as it was only a little after 10 o'clock and my rehearsal wasn't due until 11am. I decided to find where the rehearsal was to take place and took a lift down to a basement to the appropriate room. It was at this point that I realised what kind of a day I was in for, as the sound confronting me when the lift doors opened was amazing: choirs 3 and 4 were in combined rehearsal, and the sound was just terrific. Despite hearing them in relatively poor acoustics, they sounded absolutely wonderful even though they had only been singing together for a few minutes. Impressed and enthused by this promising sound, I waited for my own choir's rehearsal impatiently.
Stephen Williams rehearsed the choirs in the Palace Hotel accompanied by Graham Eccles. Each pair of choirs (3 and 4, and 7 and 8, at the Palace Hotel) had an hour of combined rehearsal time and a similar arrangement happened for the four other choirs in the Bridgewater Hall where they rehearsed with main-man David Lawrence and Darius Battiwalla. The hour-long sessions had to cover learning the entire piece, and proceeded, somewhat unexpectedly, backwards: the final section of the piece was the first thing to be rehearsed, perhaps because it's the most difficult, with quite complex syncopations, and would potentially require the most learning time. In the event, although there were some slightly tricky moments, the rehearsal went very smoothly and there was just a decent amount of time to get through everything, despite the fact that a fair amount of time was expended on warm-up exercises at the start.
Singing in the Bridgewater Hall turned out to be a back-to-front affair because the choirs were arranged around the auditorium where the audience would normally sit, positioned at different heights over three floors, which created an interesting three-dimensional body of sound. The stage was left bare except for the conductor, David Lawrence, the organist, Darius Battiwalla, and a camera on a long boom which peered around throughout the event.
Because Choirs 1 to 4 had an hour-long rehearsal at 12:30, followed by a second hour's rehearsal for choirs 5 to 8, the upshot was a fair amount of waiting for everyone not singing. I found this a little tedious, particularly because I didn't know anyone else who was there (though I did end up in enjoyable conversations with friendly strangers from time to time). I was surprised not to meet anyone from other choirs with which I've been involved. Though I have been a member of Wakefield Cathedral choir in the past, and am currently in both the Huddersfield Singers and the Huddersfield Choral Society (the latter being a nearly 200-strong entity) the only person I recognised was organist Darius Battiwalla, who accompanies the Choral. Perhaps I missed a few; but it did strike me that, if these choirs' members had all attended this event en masse, they could have accounted for nearly a quarter of the sought after thousand singers!
The one potential problem that had particularly worried me about the performance by so many people was the potential for dragging and mistiming. Over the years, one of the most frustrating problems I have observed among larger choirs in particular is the potential for singers to fall behind the beat and leave the poor conductor behaving ever more energetically and giving the impression that he's stirring treacle. With up to a thousand singers present, I had been very much afraid that the whole enterprise would either just grind to a halt or collapse into a chaotic mass of incoherency. It was with a certain amount of amazement, therefore, that I found that this was not happening. Rather, right from the outset, timing proved not to be a problem. The massed choir was responsive and kept commendably to the beat.
I suspect that this was actually due to a combination of the difficulty of the piece and the basic competence of the majority of singers who applied. There's no question that even the most competent singers taking part would have had to count like billyo to be sure of not losing their place and coming in on time; it's simply not possible to sing Spem in Alium on auto-pilot (at least, not if you want to come in at the right place). So, everyone present would have been concentrating like mad to ensure that they kept with the beat and didn't lose their place. Also, it's pretty likely, of course, that most people who know Spem, and have a strong desire to sing in it, will have a good musical background and be basically competent, so there was a fair chance that the majority of those present were actually decent singers. And finally, David Lawrence's double-down-beats helped no end. Whilst everyone would have been counting carefully, the big beat acted as a useful confirmation that you were in the right place, and if you found yourself a bar or two out, it allowed you to reset yourself quickly and jump back to the correct position. All in all, then, what could have been a terrible problem turned out not to be an issue at all, and I'm sure that there was no-one more delighted about this than the conductor himself.
The full rehearsal comprised a few complete runs-through of the piece and a bit of top-and-tailing of individual tricky sections, but this was all that was necessary. I think that everyone was impressed by how well the combined rehearsal went, and the magnificent sound that was produced. There were really no major problems or hiccups; given the ambitious nature of the project, it went amazingly smoothly. To some extent, of course, considering the number of voice-parts going on at any one time, it didn't actually matter if people made mistakes (unless, maybe, you were a tenor in choir 7!); there were enough other singers to carry everything along, and so much combined sound that an occasional wrong note simply couldn't be heard. Regardless of the number of wrong notes any individual sang though, the overall effect was of a polished, accurate performance: everything stayed in time and in tune, despite the fact that it was actually quite difficult for the singers to hear the organ other than in the quietest sections.
One of the things that struck me most strongly during the rehearsals was what a truly amazing piece Spem in Alium actually is. Marvellous though CD recordings of it can sound, they never manage to reveal the extraordinary, three-dimensional wash of music produced by eight choirs arranged in a circle. You really have to be there to appreciate it; to take part in a performance is to feel the music swim around you and work its way around the cylinder of singers. Aside from that, the other amazing aspect is how technically well-written the piece is. Most musicians will appreciate the complexity of Renaissance polyphony, and the strictness of the rules by which it's composed; even a four-part motet of this period is a work of intricacy. One might imagine that a motet for ten times that number of voices would either be unwieldy or would have extremely boring individual parts which duplicated one another to a large extent. But Spem in Alium defies those suppositions: whilst many of the parts have large stretches of silence, and it's rare for all forty to be in play at once, every last part is rhythmically intricate and melodically interesting. The piece matches its monumental conception by its masterful construction, and is clearly a work of genius.
The final outcome
And so the time came at 5pm to put on the final, complete performance, which would be recorded for the TV broadcast. For this, an audience was brought in, composed purely of friends and relatives of the participants. Its arrival emphasised the back-to-front nature of the event, as the audience sat on the stage where the performers would normally be, and was sung at by the singers from the audience seats! The audience was quite a select bunch, as there was space for no more than 250 people on the stage at maximum, and I would estimate that only around 150 audience members were actually present.
Caution had been expressed from the outset that the final recording stage could well overrun, and that no fewer than two full takes would be required. A finishing time of 6pm had been set, but it was made quite clear that there was a distinct possibility that more than two full takes would very probably be required. As it turned out, though, the performance went so well that the minimum two takes were all that was needed, and the events concluded unexpectedly early, at 5:40pm.
I have to admit that, perversely enough, I was slightly disappointed that it had all gone so well! I was pleased that it had, of course, and I wouldn't have wanted to stay there all night recording take after take, but it all ended so quickly that I was left wishing for more. I had enjoyed singing this wonderful piece so much that I really would have enjoyed doing a third, final take.
Considering the fact that the vast majority of the participating singers had never set eyes on each other before, and most had not sung the piece previously either, going from an entirely unrehearsed piece to a polished, professional and truly resplendent-sounding performance in the space of a day was quite a remarkable achievement.
Conductor David Lawrence was clearly beside himself with joy over the success of the event, and appeared almost in danger of offering to buy everyone a drink, such was the effusiveness of his praise. I'm told that Chris Hunt, David Jackson and the Iambic Productions team members were all similarly pleased with the successful outcome. For myself, as a mere participant, I will say that I had a thoroughly enjoyable day and that the quality of the outcome exceeded my expectations. I just hope that the broadcast, when it arrives in due course, will live up to and reinforce my recollections; but I'm sure it will. Anyway, I personally found the day a hugely rewarding experience; not only did I fulfil my long-standing desire to participate in a performance of this marvellous piece, but I took part in surely the grandest-ever attempt.
On the small screen
There is as yet no word as to when the programme will be broadcast. It was commissioned as part of a Choral Season for BBC Four which is due to be aired later in the year, but beyond that there are no firm schedule details, and in any case only digital viewers see the broadcast when it first goes out. I am delighted to say, however, that Iambic Productions has confirmed that there will also be a DVD release, so the project will have a more substantial life than as a single one-off broadcast. The DVD will be distributed by DCD Media (Iambic's parent group) at some time after the BBC Four broadcast has taken place. Iambic Productions intends to inform participants of the transmission and DVD release dates once they are known.